The Foreignization of Cubans

Sandy Olivera is a young Cuban who, two years ago, emigrated as a political refugee to the United States. His girlfriend remained on this side of the sea. A week ago, he returned to Cuba to marry her.

The formalization of the marriage took place in the Specialized Notary at 23rd and J, in Vedado, Plaza de la Revolución District, in Havana. To marry, as mandated by law, he had to pay 525 CUC and 100 national currency in stamps. To make matters worse the notary, without blinking, asked for a gift of 5 CUC.

The Cuban government treated Sandy as if he were a foreigner. Has residing in the United States become one of the legally established reasons for losing Cuban citizenship?

The Constitution of the Republic states that when a person acquires foreign citizenship, Cuban citizenship will be lost. It further declares that the law establishes the procedure for the formalization of the loss of citizenship and the authorities who will decide.

This means that the fact of acquiring other citizenship does not by itself imply the loss of Cuban citizenship. For this to happen, the government authorities have to decide. In fact, Cubans with U.S. citizenship must enter the island with a Cuban passport. That is, as citizens of the socialist state.

In practice there is dual citizenship. What happens is that the government recognizes only the Cuban citizenship, ignoring that newly acquired. That is not Sandy’s case. He has not taken any steps to become a U.S. citizen, and therefore has not lost his status as a Cuban citizen.

As evidenced by the fact that he paid 220 CUC for permission to enter the country, as decided by the Cuban authorities. He entered Cuba as a Cuban citizen, yet within the island, he had to pay for services received in freely convertible currency as if he were a foreigner.

This is the “rule of law” so defended by the Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. A State that, in Article 41 of its Magna Carta recognizes that “all citizens enjoy equal rights and are subject to equal duties,” but that discriminates against those living in other parts of the world.

Cubans living abroad are not foreigners. It is understood that the “socialist state subsidizes the services that the population receives” and that those living abroad have greater purchasing power than those living on the island. But the factual situations do not justify the government violating constitutional rights.

Laritza Diversent

Translated by: Tomás A.

Cuba and Its System of Exclusion (I)

It is fair to acknowledge that foreign investment in Cuba brings benefits to the economy. But by itself it is not the solution for confronting the overwhelming problems.

Law No. 77 was adopted in 1995 to provide security and guarantees to foreign investors, and from this to achieve economic recovery. So stated the Cuban Parliament, in the introduction of this statutory provision.

In it the National Assembly also said that through foreign investment Cuba could get (among other objectives) increased production efficiency, improved quality of products and services offered, and reduced costs.

Fifteen years after this law was passed, it’s worth asking: Did it enhance the welfare of the Cuban people? Which services was Parliament referring to — those received by foreigners or those offered to the general population?  And regarding the latter, some comments.

Inadequate wages discourage citizens, mainly young people, from working with the State. How does the government solve the problem of labor abstinence, which forced it to increase the retirement age? By imposing four-year prison sentences for social dangerousness.

This leads to another problem, that of illegalities. The low purchasing power of thousands of families causes them to live outside the state regulations, in order to cope with the ongoing crisis.

What is the solution to this other conflict? The deployment of police operatives to catch those who are engaged in individual economic activity red-handed. Isn’t it easier to legalize the status of people who opt to live independently of state handouts?

Why doesn’t the Cuban government encourage profitable activities by citizens? Just as with  foreign investment, the individual economic initiative of Cubans results in increased productivity, the creation of new jobs, etc..

In principle, one of the reasons underlying the exclusion of Cubans from national economic affairs was the social egalitarianism that socialism attempted but never attained.

To try to guarantee one right, others were violated. A supposed social equality justified the government acting contrary to constitutional dictates, and led to an institutionalized form of segregation, based on national origin.

Cuba needs a law of investment, not exclusion. In its 15-year existence, Law 77 has only brought economic apartheid. It is not fair that only the individual capital of foreigners has value in the Cuban economy.

Laritza Diversent

Translated by: Tomás A.

Ricardo’s Smile

It was an ordeal to go from La Vibora, my neighborhood, to Miramar, where Ricardo González Alfonso lived. There were only two options: catch Route 69, which could take two or three hours. Or the 100, with more buses, but with many more passengers, for its extensive run.

The 69 stops near Ricardo’s house. But if you took the 100 you had to get off at the Comodoro hotel stop and walk several blocks, in the sunshine or the rain. When you arrived, Ricardo would greet you with a smile. Even if he had just received a subpoena from State Security.

Once inside his ramshackle home, he would offer you a glass of cold water, from his even more dilapidated refrigerator. And tea from a plastic thermos, because he couldn’t be brewing coffee at all hours in the old coffee maker. Sometimes he served tea in a plastic cup, which he didn’t throw out: he rinsed it and returned it to use. But typically he would offer it to you in a glass jar, from when they sold Russian jam in Cuba, and which are still used as “cups” for tea or coffee in many homes.

Ricardo was one of the first to be hauled in on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 18, 2003. An operation with olive-green uniforms, similar to what was carried out against other dissidents. In the crosshairs of the repression there were more than a hundred dissidents and independent journalists, but in the red dot of the gunsight was Ricardo González Alfonso.

Not because of his good character. And not because, practically by himself, with very little help, he brought to fruition an idea of Raúl Rivero: founding the Márquez Sterling Journalists Society, a purely professional association.

Ricardo was also able to assemble and print two issues of the magazine De Cuba, the only two that State Security allowed to circulate (Claudia Márquez managed to do a third in September 2003, with the help of Vladimiro Roca and Tania Quintero, among a few others who risked it in those dark days).

Ricardo did all that without ceasing to smile. But above all, without ceasing: to issue denunciations and write stories and poems; to serve visitors – from other provinces or other countries; to give interviews to the international media; to organize journalism workshops in his home; and to act as a correspondent for Reporters Without Borders in Cuba .

When Ricardo was arrested, at his home were his two sons, Daniel and David, then just boys, today young men. Two of the things he loves most in this world. Also left behind was Alida Viso Bello, an independent journalist like himself and his partner in life.

Hopefully among those to be released as a result of those negotiations between the government of Raul Castro and the Cuban Catholic Church will be my friend Ricardo González Alfonso, who has turned 60, and his health, as with nearly all political prisoners, is quite impaired. Not so his perennial smile.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

The Special Period Returns

If we Cubans thought that our hardships and shortages of all kinds had hit bottom, forget it. It is the twentieth anniversary of the most severe and extensive economic crisis that the island suffered in all its history. Those were hard years. Very hard.

It is still fresh in my memory. Blackouts of up to 16 hours. Undernourished people with tattered clothes, lining up at cafes to drink a vile brew made from orange and grapefruit peels. My mother, how could I forget, thinned down greatly, lost some teeth, and had to sell her most precious treasure — a fabulous collection of Brazilian music — for only $40, so she could shop for some food.

In 1989 in Cuba a violent decline in people’s daily lives had begun. Not that we had lived well. No. We were deprived of all kinds of essential freedoms, and we were third-class citizens in our own country.

But we had a relatively efficient health system, and the ration card had a bit more variety. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the door was closed to Fidel Castro for oil and Soviet rubles. Then we entered the age of indigence.

The economy shrank by 35 percent, and Castro clung even tighter to power, in the style of Kim Il Sung. Faced with the prospect of people dropping like flies in public view, he made lukewarm reforms. He legalized the currency of his enemy, the United States, and allowed some work to be opened to self-employment.

That was the lifesaver, because Havana is not Pyongyang. Everything good that happened to us in those years came at the hand of dollars or foreign capital investment. Then the government of the Castro brothers, amid fears that economic reforms could cost them the presidential chair, put on all kinds of brakes.

Foreign companies have declined to a minimum. And just as we’ve marked two decades since the dire national situation, the world is brought down by a deep economic crisis. No one has been spared. In order not to cause panic, the official media have started a mild campaign about how much the global crisis has affected us.

Already several nickel companies have closed, because of the depressed price of that metal on the world market. Those affected talk of the fall in tobacco exports and how few tourists are coming to the island. Obviously, these are not times for vacationing.

The solution, as always, is to ask for more sacrifice — and still more — from the exhausted Cuban population. Another turn of the screw. There is no mention that the culprit is the monumental economic inefficiency of a system that runs counter to human nature. Nor is there talk of allowing Cubans to set up small and medium-sized businesses.

They are entrenched in their far-fetched theories of sovereignty and two-bit nationalism. And of course we ordinary Cubans are to blame for the disaster, we who are asked to cut back, not to think about the future and, instead, “to be loyal to the supreme leader.”

According to an economist, there is so little money in the state coffers that “about two hundred thousand barrels of the oil that Venezuela sells us at preferential prices are being resold on the world market, because of the lack of liquidity.”

It is the height of folly. It’s like being hungry and selling food. Under the state of affairs emerging on the Island, this summer the majority of citizens will have to punch a new hole in the already tight belt. Another one.

Iván García

Photo: almamagazine, Flickr.

Translated by: Tomás A.

An Act of Repudiation from Within

The sun beats down hard on the grey and white building located on Aguila street at the corner of Dragones, next to Chinatown in Havana. On that piece of real estate which was long ago given up by the Cuban Telephone Company, are the offices of ETESCA, the Empresa Cubana de Telecomunicaciones (the Cuban Telecommunications Company).

On his morning walk (a brief revolutionary act), the section leader chooses a group of workers to take part in the siege on Laura Pollan’s house next Saturday.  She is one of the key members of the Damas de Blanco (the Ladies in White), who this spring of 2010 have aroused fear and loathing within the agents of the government.

The marches by the Damas, who demand freedom for their imprisoned loved ones, has driven the regime of the Castro brothers to mount a permanent operation in front of Pollan’s house.

To deter the Damas, they use shock troops made up of employees from the stores and workplaces located near Laura Pollan’s house at 963 Neptuno, between Aramburu and Hospital, in Central Havana.

The story I am about to tell you happened two weeks ago.  A group of workers from ETESCA, almost all of them youth or communist party militants, were chosen to prevent the Ladies in White from leaving Pollan’s house.

In order to get out of having to participate, some of the women in the group claimed that they were sick or had family problems.  They just wanted to evade the issue.  But they are people who are prepared, with access to the Internet or illegal cable antennas in their homes.

They have seen what happens.  The offenses and the violence.  The boss gets strict:  “You all represent the organizations of the Party and the youth at the core, this isn’t a favor we are asking of you, it’s an order.”

They go without really wanting to.  For Lucrecia, a young woman recently graduated in telecommunications engineering, its an adventure of sorts.  She’ll see for the first time the “mercenaries” who make the news that she stealthily reads on the Internet.

The people who have been chosen for this task walk to Pollan’s house with feelings of anxiety.  If there’s a row, they won’t know what to do.  Rosario has never hit anyone in her life.  Much less women who demand freedom for their husbands, sons or brothers.  “If a family member of mine were being held prisoner, I would do the same thing they are doing,” she confesses.

More than hatred, they feel a certain admiration.  Some of them, the most uninformed, say that the Ladies in White are paid 20 dollars for each march.  “If that’s the way it is, some day I’ll join them,” says Elena smiling.

A dark-haired obese female, reminiscent of a Sumo Wrestler, leads the women. “She looked like a thug, with thick features, and never smiled,” remembers Lucrecia.

Other women who work in the neighborhood gather around the female employees of ETECSA.  Not a single man is around.  “What happens if there is a fight?” asks a girl.  The female soldier dressed in civilian clothing responds: “That’s our problem.” Referring to the security forces.

They are there for twelve hours sitting around the fence in front of Laura Pollan’s house.  Soldiers dressed as civilians moving about on Suzuki motorcycles constantly telling people where to go.

After three in the afternoon, when they are very hungry, some soldiers arrive with cardboard boxes containing disgusting cold black beans and rice with a boiled egg on top for the women.  Most of them protest.  “This is a mess, if all we get for participating in this shit and risking being hit is this crappy food, don’t count on me anymore” says one of the women.

An official tries to calm them down.  “Please, remember the difficult economic situation our country is experiencing.”  Just about all of the women throw the food in the garbage can.  As night falls, they mobilize.  The next day, the Damas de Blanco did not go out or do their march.

The next day all the ETESCA employees who took part in the harassment at Laura Pollán’s house complained to their bosses. “Don’t even think about asking me to go back for another act of repudiation; don’t count on me, go yourselves,” says one of them, insulted. The bosses are silent in the face of the flood of curses. They have no choice.

The government wants to sell the image that the people, acting spontaneously, are the ones who suppress the Ladies in White. Many people participate out of fear and for various considerations. Whether they are political or want to maintain that appearance. Nobody in a major company wants to be identified as “disaffected with the government.” Everything is staged. In the best Cuban style.

Iván García

Translated by: Hank and Tomás A.

The Cuban Economy Is Sinking

And not because of an earthquake. Quietly, one business after another is closing. Although the official Cuban press, the most optimistic in the world, ignores this, from 2000 to the present you can count on one hand the number of foreign investors who have kept their businesses in Cuba.

Italian businessmen in the telecommunications sector, who invested in ETECSA, the only company on the island in that industry, said goodbye a year ago. Israeli businessmen who bought the citrus production of Jaguey Grande, in Matanzas, and produced fruit juices, have also gone.

According to a source who prefers to remain anonymous, investors from the largest foreign investor in Cuba, Canada’s Sherritt, specializing in the mining business, are conducting a feasibility study. If they get red numbers, they will pack their bags.

The building construction sector has been immobilized for seven years on the direct orders of Fidel Castro. So what remains are a few companies in the field of tourism. China and Russia, the candidates sought by the leaders of the island, look askance at the proposals offered to them.

They know that Cuba’s ability to pay is almost nil. Russia is already owed several billion rubles. And China, with a similar ideological outlook, will donate a couple million dollars in the event of a hurricane, but if you don’t have money to pay them, see you later.

The trump card that the Castros play is the Venezuela of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías. It is a bet on foolishness and voluntarism. More of the same. But there are not many options for a government that has a grudge against the market economy because a group of people got rich.

In 2010 the economic alliance with Caracas is all that remains. And it’s barely working. The only benefit is being able to buy oil at bargain prices, without having to pay for it in hard currency. Cuba pays for the black gold with human capital: military or civilian, medical and sports trainers.

There will not be an abundance of food on the tables of the poor on this island or in Venezuela, nor will life be better because of this alliance. For one thing, both nations manage their economies on the fly. In the case of Cuba, it is striking how they continue to bet on the centralized economy.

Having coinciding ideologies, as is the case with Castro and several presidents of the Hemisphere, is not the same as creating a coherent strategy for designing a sustainable economy. Virulent and polarizing speech does not count in economics. What matters is to save and work hard to get out of the deep hole of poverty.

To justify their failures, the Castros have their favorite weapon: the Yankee embargo. But no one but a fanatic or a moron could seriously blame only the U.S. embargo for the poor performance of the local economy. It doesn’t take a think-tank, or an expert in economic matters, to point out those responsible for sending the Cuban economy back to the stone age.

If Fidel Castro is credited with the glory of the vaunted successes in education, sports, and public health, then he should also be charged with the failures. His experimental manner of managing the island’s economy would fill several volumes of nonsense.

Inflating numbers and lying while making annual financial reports is not going to solve our problems. Now, General Raul Castro and his advisers are seeking a range of solutions to break the deadlock in which they find the economy.

As an experiment they are thinking of renting business places, such as barber shops, cafes, and taxis, to groups of workers. A kind of cooperative, where if they do well, the people will earn more money.

It remains to be seen if this formula works. So far, Roberto Guerra, manager of a dilapidated Havana pizzeria, has his doubts. “If they don’t free up the prices of products, and if we are bound to sell at the price assigned to us by the State Committee on Prices, this recipe will not work.”

The government knows better than anyone that people on the street are very upset with the performance of the economy and lack of future in their lives. Cubans want change in economic matters. They want them to allow unlimited self-employment and to reduce taxes.

But they want more. They want to invest in medium-sized enterprises with their relatives residing in the United States if the regime will authorize it. Raul Castro knows that something must be done, but like his brother, he is afraid that a series of economic reforms will be uncontrollable by the government.

The Cuban revolution has been more political than economic. And now what preoccupies the leaders on the island is hanging onto power. If in the future a leader or political group manages to get on track and makes the Cuban economy thrive, they will be awarded a gold medal.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Stories of Ordinary People

Life for Juan Domeq, age 69, is a vicious cycle. He gets up every morning at 5:30 am and slowly hobbles to a newsstand to buy 50 issues of the newspaper Granma, and the same number of Juventud Rebelde. Domeq spends 20 pesos (less than US$1) for the hundred copies. If he can sell them at 1 peso each, he gets 80 pesos profit, but he doesn’t often sell that many issues.

“People on the street are not very interested in what our press says. Also, the clerk at the newsstand can’t can’t always sell me 100 newspapers. I usually sell between 40 and 50. Then, if I have a good day, I buy some fruits or vegetables for my wife who has been bedridden four years from paralysis; I must also buy milk or yogurt. The little money I earn selling newspapers is spent on food, and I have to keep my eyes open, because several times the police have fined me 40 pesos for selling the newspaper without a license,” says Juan, a sad old man full of aches, who lives in a filthy tenement in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana.

At the same time that Domeq rises to buy the newspaper, Antonio Villa, 64 years old, physically disabled, wakes up and has a cup of hot coffee for breakfast. He goes in his wheelchair to the Monaco bakery, where at the entrance he sells bags (purses) made of nylon for one peso (5 cents U.S.) each.

According to Antonio, a person can sell a hundred nylon purses for 35 pesos. “Selling bags usually takes between 10 and 12 hours a day. Sometimes I have a good day and manage to sell 200 bags, but I usually sell only 80 or 90. With what I get — between 65 to 120 pesos (about 3 to $5) — I buy food and save some pennies to pay a woman who washes my clothes. The police have taken me to the station many times, and in addition to fining me they have confiscated my bags. But when they set me free, I go back to the only thing I can do to earn an honest living,” says Antonio, a black man who lost a leg during the war in Angola in 1987, and lives in a wooden shack with an aluminum roof.

Also not having much luck trying to scrounge a handful of pesos, Clara Rojas, age 70, old, dirty, and poorly dressed, lives in a decrepit nursing home in the La Vibora neighborhood. Clara sells cigarettes at retail. “In the home they give us lunch and dinner, but so poorly prepared that many old people who live there prefer to find some money on our own and eat in the street.”

After spending 14 hours selling cigarettes, the money earned her enough to eat a serving of rice, pea soup, and an unidentified fish full of bones, in a state joint where the prices are low. With a full stomach, she returns to the rest home to sleep.

Juan, Antonio, and Clara are three old people burdened with infirmities, with mild senile dementia, and without a family to care for them. They have to perform miracles to survive in the harsh conditions of Cuban socialism. And they are not unique.

Iván García

Translated by Marlise Lohmann and Tomás A.

You Can Buy a Chevrolet

With money in hand, there’s something for every taste. A Chevy from the ’40’s or a well-kept ’54 Ford. A fin-tail Cadillac or a ’56 General Motors truck that looks like it just came from the factory. Cuba is the only country in the world in whose streets run thousands of American cars, jeeps, and trucks from the mid-twentieth century.

No doubt it’s the largest outdoor museum in existence for cars of that age. And because you can’t buy cars unless you have a state permit, in light of the poor state of public transportation, people with money have decided to buy a car manufactured in the workshops of Detroit several decades ago.

Jose Santiago, 42, calculator in hand, runs the numbers. He believes he will recoup his investment in seven years. Santiago wants to engage in the business of taxis for hire. It’s probably the only stable means of transportation on the island, although the government doesn’t sell so much as a screw to repair private cars.

In Cuba, buying and selling cars is only allowed for those owners who have a transfer certificate. So it is with the “big almonds”, as the old American cars are known on the island, because their owners bought them before the Castros came to power.

According to Roberto Diego, 34, it is common for a Chevrolet or a Ford to have had a dozen owners. Prices have gone through the roof. “In the ’80s, you could buy a ’57 Chevrolet for 3,000 pesos (when that amount was equivalent to 3,000 dollars, as the currency was illegal and the government swapped one for one with the dollar). Now, in 2010, it can cost 20,000 Cuban Convertible pesos (18,000 U.S. dollars), if it’s been kept like a jewel,” said Diego, who drives a Ford Austin from the ’40’s whose condition provokes envy.

Not that the drivers of the island are lovers of antique cars. They just have no other option. Luis Valle, 52, would prefer driving an Audi or a Cherokee “air-conditioned and with a computer, but I’m realistic; here, that’s impossible.”

State tourism agencies annually hold antique car parades, where you can see everything from a 1918 Ford, to rare versions of cars that had a limited production. On the interior streets bordering the steep steps of the National Capitol, dozens of old “jalopies” belonging to the Gran Caribe company are rented, for hard currency, to tourists who want to take a ride in an antique car through a city frozen in time.

For the ordinary citizen, when racing against the clock, the cheapest and fastest method is to take one of the “big almonds” that circulate on the various downtown streets of the capital. They charge 10 pesos, or 20 if the trip is longer. And they work four times better than the state-owned taxis, which have been missing in action for some time.

The ingenuity that keeps these cars running is worthy of admiration. General Motors engineering pales in comparison to the unique native solutions for the vintage cars. Without spare parts, and with a touch of fantasy, Cuban mechanics are able to keep these cars rolling.

Real monsters. Mechanical Frankensteins. With engines from Russian cars, transmissions from Spanish cars of the Franco era, and gear boxes from Italian Alfa Romeos from the ’70s. Their hard bodies, made from the abundant steel of World War II military equipment, have been painted and massaged numerous times.

Some are as beautiful as that of Javier Cueto, 65, owner of a 1958 Chevrolet, intact and without modification. “I’ve been offered 21,000 Cuban convertible pesos (19,000 U.S. dollars), but I pay no attention.” And he amiably shows the good conditions under which he keeps his car.

When you take an old taxi in the streets of Havana, the first thing the driver says is “please don’t slam the door.” While some cars have been rolling for nearly 70 years, faced with the uncertain future that is emerging in Cuba, the drivers of mid-twentieth-century American cars know they should continue taking care of them in detail. They may have to continue “boteando” (renting) them for a long time.

And if despair knocks on the door, it won’t be the first time that a Chevrolet is converted into a boat with an outboard motor. En route to Miami.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

Havana Celebrates for its Ball Players

This April 1st, we forgot about the lack of food and the tragedy of living without a future.  We set aside our empty refrigerators, as well as all the anachronistic internal politics that don’t work. We ignored the bad taste left by an inoperative government, and the empty wallets.

It is Thursday of Holy Week, but Havana is partying. Yes. This Havana of columns and porches, of the Prado and the Malecon, is enjoying the victory of its baseball team, which was just crowned National Champion.

Baseball, a sport introduced during the 19th century by Cubans residing in the U.S., is a passion in Cuba.  It’s play became widespread and resonates deep within the country.  Before 1959, when Fidel Castro took power, a series of winter championship games, which were followed by millions of fans from all the provinces, would take place throughout the island.

These games were made up for four teams:  Almendares, Havana, Marianao, and Cienfuegos.  The majority of the people would root for the Almendares “Blues” or the Red Lions of Havana.  Huge stars who later became popular in the US, such as Orestes (“Minnie”) Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant, and Adolfo Luque, debuted in our very own local classics.

The oldest fans can remember that final match in 1944 between the eternal rivals, Havana and Almendares, won by the latter when no one believed it possible. Industriales, the new lions of Havana, now wear blue.  And in the 2010 finals, the Blues of the capital and the Oranges of Villa Clara brought back the same drama from that 1944 series.

Industriales are not just the icons of the capital, but also of the entire country.  Since 1959 they have won the most, with 12 titles.  It is a team that is either hated or loved, but never unnoticed.

It is also the team that, without a doubt, has lost the most players, thanks to the ceaseless trickling of desertions.  Players who leave the island, tired of their worker salaries and full of dreams of becoming millionaires in the best baseball in the world, the Major Leagues in the United States.

Industriales were three-time champions with the New York Yankees’ pitcher Orlando “Duque” Hernandez, a great among the greats. Their ranks also yielded some who showed promise, and now actually shine in the majors, like Yunel Escobar with the Atlanta Braves and Kendry Morales with the California Angels.

In the last twenty years, Industriales have lost more than 40 first-rate players. All decided to go to the United States, the baseball world’s mecca. Despite this, those who have remained are always in the mix. From 2003 to date, they have won four crowns. First with manager Rey Vicente Anglada and now with Germán “The Wizard” Mesa.

Germán Mesa is considered the best shortstop of all time in Cuban baseball. He was removed in the late 90s, per government decree by Fidel Castro, who accused him of being part of a network of players and major league scouts who instigated the defection of native players. For three years “The Wizard” was absent from the baseball fields. Until he was redeemed in 1999 and authorized to play again.

In this championship, Industriales’s chances of taking the title were slim. In 2009, the ninth pair of their most outstanding pitchers left: Yadel Marti and Dennis Suarez, who were central to the team. If to them you add the whole litter of its members who have defected since 2003, Industriales had no chance of winning.

The year before, they had occupied 12th place. They didn’t even qualify for the post-season playoffs. It was expected that this campaign would straggle into mediocrity. True, they had been reinforced with young talent, but it was felt that they were still very green.

Hence the great merit of this team. They were never favored in the final three games, against Sancti Spiritus, Havana, and Villa Clara. But the men did it and defeated the Spiritus, the best team of the season, Havana, with the best pitching, and then the Orange of Villa Clara, the most consistent in the last dozen years.

The final best-of-seven-games with Villa Clara were full of suspense. They were a drama. And are regarded as the most tense and hotly contested games since 1959.

When after two in the morning, Industriales won the crown in Augusto Cesar Sandino Stadium in Santa Clara, at that hour, 300 kilometers away in the capital, they beat the drums and, in the absence of cava or champagne, uncorked bottles of rum. Hundreds of fans lined the streets between rumba steps and mouthfuls of rum, to celebrate the title of their Blues.

In swirling lines they marched to Central Park – the Havana version of La Cibeles – and until well into the morning they celebrated the win. About 3 p.m., in convertible cars, the Industriales players made their entry into the capital, cheered by hundreds of thousands of fans who lined the route of the procession.

Cars horns honked furiously all day long, and many people didn’t go to work. People were exulting on the rock in Central Park, the same one often visited by Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the political prisoner who died after a prolonged hunger strike on February 23rd, and a rabid lover of baseball.

In this Holy Week, Havana is celebrating. People have brought large speakers to the balconies, and with loud reggaeton music they revel in the victory. I’m also out in it. Since I was three years old – and I’m now 44 – I’ve been a fan of Industriales.

I have pity for Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas, the dissident journalist and psychologist on a hunger strike in Santa Clara, a follower of the Oranges. According to his friends, was glued to the TV until late in the game. I feel for you, Coco.

Iván García

Translated by Raul G. and Tomás A.

Calle 13 and their Havana Megaconcert

The megaconcert started at 5 p.m. sharp. The one in charge of warming up the 100,000 people crowding into the “Anti-Imperialist Rostrum,” popularly known as the “Protestodrome,” was Cuban singer Kelvis Ochoa.

For nearly an hour, in warm spring sun and a gentle breeze, Ochoa went through his repertoire from top to bottom. He heated the place up. A poor audio that could barely be heard more than 350 meters from the stage did not prevent people from enjoying themselves, jumping and dancing, as only those born in this corner of the world can.

With their bottles of sugar-cane rum, or cans of Cristal beer, the mass of youth made it a date, enjoying the concert. After 6 in the evening the music of the Boricuan* band Calle 13 broke out.

The Puerto Rican musicians, who boast several Grammy awards, have many followers on the island. And from the first hit, the Protestódrome exploded. Despite a heavy police presence, thousands of tourists had joined the wild dancing and the hip hop tropical holiday.

The good feeling continued even after Calle 13 played their final note after two hours of contagious rhythm and fiery lyrics. Thousands of people, eager to prolong the event, gathered in the parks of Vedado to pass around brandy and, accompanied by an Mp3 or an old broken-down guitar, to sing until they were hoarse, throughout the night.

Others stood in long lines at the Coppelia ice cream parlor, to ease the heat with an ice cream of modest quality available for purchase with national currency. There were only a couple of flavors, and they didn’t include strawberry or chocolate.

Opposite the capital-city ice creamery, there were long lines to buy hot dogs for ten pesos. The places that accept only convertible currency were also packed.

It turns out that in Havana the people are thirsty for good concerts and high-quality cultural activities. And when there are some, like the concert by Juanes and Miguel Bosé, September 20, 2009 at Revolution Plaza, or this one by Calle 13 at the edge of the Malecon, people will turn out however they can.

They forget about poor transportation and bad food. They even set baseball aside, although the national title is being decided, and Industriales, the local team, is in contention.

“Baseball can wait, but shows like Calle 13 only happen once in a while,” says Yuri, a 23-year-old black young man, outlandishly dressed and wearing heavy 14 karat gold chains . Nonetheless, Yuri and his friends are constantly keeping an eye on their watches; they don’t wait for the end of the show and rush to catch a packed bus to their homes.

They wanted to arrive in time to watch the final match on tv between Industriales and Villa Clara for the championship. If they succeeded, they could kill two birds with one stone. They enjoyed good music and they could see on tv the conclusion of a sizzling tournament.

And in an expensive Havana, with few recreational options, to be able to enjoy two high-level events on one day is a luxury. And for free.

Iván García

*Puerto Ricans refer to themselves using the Taino word “boricua”

Translated by: Tomás A.

Being a Journalist in Cuba

To engage in the profession of journalism in Cuba, outside the control of the state, has its dangers.  Not to the extreme of having a hitman show up at your door on a motorcycle and fire a full magazine at you point blank from a .45 caliber pistol, as happens in Mexico or Colombia.

They also don’t put a black hood over you and later dump your mutilated body in a dumpster, as occurred during the 80’s in Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala.  No.  For being an independent journalist or a critic of the Castro administration what could happen to you is that you can be thrown behind bars for up to 20 years if the government decides to do so.

The Castros promise many years of jail for those of us who report on our own account.  But to date, there has not been a documented State-sponsored assassination of a reporter, either official or independent.

For being a free lance journalist on the island, authorities can orchestrate an “act of repudiation”, a verbal lynching in which members of the public, instigated by the political police, insult and scream at you with the veins extended on their necks about to explode.

It’s also possible that some unknown person, a supposed “delinquent”, will ambush you and beat you up in the darkness of the night.  Or that the phone in your house will ring incessantly at 3 A.M. and when you answer it, a disguised voice shouts an earful of insults at you. By the way

When you decide to write without official sanction you lose your job, and State Security has the right to threaten you and summon and question you whenever they feel like it, under the guise of having a “friendly chat.”

The phenomenon of Cuban independent journalism was born in the 90’s.  Among its founders are Rolando Cartaya, Indamiro Restano, Rafael Solano, José Rivero, Julio San Francisco, Raúl Rivero, Iria González Rodiles, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Juan Antonio Sánchez, Germán Castro, Tania Quintero, Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, Jorge Olivera, Olance Nogueras, Joaquin Torres, Héctor Peraza, Manuel Vázquez Portal.

On 18 March 2003, Fidel Castro was determined to strike a blow against journalism outside the State. During the early morning hours that day, the political police forces arrested 75 dissidents and journalists. In the black spring, 25 communicators ended up in jail; their only crime was reporting without government permission.

Correspondents such as Raúl Rivero, one of the heavyweights of Cuban journalism and director of the independent agency Cuba Press, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Thanks to the intervention of the Spanish government, today he is a free man who writes two columns a week for the Spanish edition of the daily newspaper El Mundo.

Right now, 27 journalists languish in the hellish Cuban prisons. One of them is Ricardo González Alfonso, correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, who has not stopped writing in prison. In Spain he has published two books: Bleeding History, a collection of poems, and Men Without Faces, a narrative. Another is Pablo Pacheco, whose written and oral testimony from Canaleta Prison can be read on the blog Voices Behind Bars.

But since 1999, law number 88, or the gag law, has been floating menacingly in the air of the Republic, giving the regime a free hand in deciding when to send someone to the penitentiary. Not a single text by a free Cuban journalist has been written without a measure of fear and paranoia. It’s normal. Because you never know if tonight you will sleep in your own bed or in the bunk of a jail cell of the police or State Security.

At times I have a nightmare. In the solitude of my room, I dream that there is a loud pounding on the door of the house. And some tough, dog-faced guys dressed in olive green take me out of the room without my feet touching the floor, throw me by force into a Russian-made car with military license plates, and take me as a prisoner to an unknown destination.

Not all are hallucinations. Sometimes I dream that the little hands of my seven-year-old daughter, together with her mother, wake me with the good news that the government of General Raúl Castro abolished the absurd laws — Cubans no longer need permission to leave the island, the exiles who wish may return to their homeland, and never again will it be a crime to write a chronicle or opinion piece telling the truth about Cuba and Cubans.

Whenever this happens, I wonder which of these dreams will become a reality first.

Iván García

Photo: AP. (Right) Ricardo González Alfonso in 2002, some months before being detained and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (Left) Luis Cino, also an independent journalist.

Translated by Raul G. and Tomás A.

A Minister in the Public Pillory

The street corners of Havana are hot. Glowing. Like a match on sandpaper that will burst into flame at the slightest touch. Baseball is to blame. This spring it is being played coast-to-coast on the island, celebrating the playoffs of the national sport, and Los Industriales, the team representing the capital, is hitting hot. The fans are going wild.

If baseball or “the ball,” as it is called in Cuba, serves as relaxation for most men, for women the sedative is found in soap operas, the electronic opium that makes them forget for 45 minutes that their refrigerators are empty.

But the ordinary Cuban also gives at least a passing glance to local events. And sees bad signs. Circulating clandestinely throughout the country are more than 300 photos of 26 deaths (rumored to be almost 60) from hunger, cold, and ill-treatment this past January, at the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana, known as Mazorra.

If you have the courage to look at the entire dark collection you have a strong stomach. The photos, taken by police experts, somehow escaped the iron state censorship imposed by the authorities over the Mazorra case. And many people carry them on their USB or flash memory, and late at night, when the children are asleep, like a scary movie, they watch the horrors on their computers.

The black and white images of the dead are comparable to those from any Nazi concentration camp. Men without teeth, with fresh marks from beatings, emaciated bodies, concrete testimony of the hunger they suffered. They were so thin that three bodies fit on one stretcher.

Confronted with such horror, ordinary people have been shaken. Roberto Osorio, 34, an engineer, trembled with fear at the photos. And he wondered how these things could happen in this country, which, according to its leaders, has a public health system comparable with the best in the world.

In a survey of 30 people, between 19 and 74 years old, of both sexes, they unanimously demanded not only a thorough investigation, but also asked for the resignation of Public Health Minister José Ramón Balaguer Cabrera.

Balaguer (born in Santiago de Cuba, 1932), a doctor by profession and one of the guerrilla commanders who participated in the revolution, is a member of the State Council and the Politburo of the Communist Party. He was appointed Minister of Public Health by Fidel Castro himself, when on July 31, 2006, he announced that for health reasons he was transferring power to his brother Raul.

One of those surveyed, Dahlia Fuentes, 56, an architect, doesn’t believe it’s possible that the minister wasn’t aware of what was happening in the country’s main mental hospital. “In every workplace in Cuba, there is a core of the Party and the Communist Youth, and they have to report what goes on. Furthermore, I assume that the Ministry of Health makes periodic inspections of its hospitals. If, in spite of all that, Balaguer’s story is that he was not informed of what was going on there, then he should resign because of incompetence” the architect says angrily.

Sara Villar, 21, a medical student, goes further. “Events like these are a clear sign that the country needs radical changes. It is not enough just to ask for the resignations and prosecutions of those responsible, it is the system that doesn’t work,” says the future doctor.

What happened in Mazorra in January 2010, has placed the performance of public officials, administrators and ministers in the public pillory. Also the political opposition, alternative journalists and the blogosphere are demanding the termination of Balaguer. The blogger Yoani Sanchez opened the tag #despidanaabalaguer# on Twitter, with hundreds of thousands of followers so far.

Amid the passionate discussions around the series of local baseball playoffs, and the next episode of the snoozer soap operas, the  opinion on the street prevails: people want the head of the Minister of Public Health to roll.

The government has gone totally mute. Its response is silence. Even in these days, Jose Ramon Balaguer is appearing more than ever on TV. And people are wondering if that is the method adopted by the mandarins of court to confirm him in office.

It would be swimming against the current. But if there is one thing the Castro brothers know how to do well, it is swim upstream.

Iván García

Photo: José Ramón Balaguer during the presentation of the book, “Battles for Life,” in February 2009.

Translated by: Tomás A.

Good Worms and Bad Worms

It was Fidel Castro who, in one of his his typical vitriolic outbursts, during a speech on January 2, 1961 (in what was then the Civic Plaza, today Revolution Plaza), applied the epithet “worms” to those Cubans who dared to criticize his olive green revolution or who decided to leave their homeland. That day he also first used the term “gusanera” [roughly equivalent to what today might be called “the wormosphere”(!)] as synonymous with counterrevolution.

Since 1959, more than two million Cubans have emigrated from their country. Let’s speak frankly. Certainly in the first waves of migration, early in the revolution, the vast majority of those who fled the island were individuals who openly hated Castro.

Many had lost their properties, nationalized in one stroke by the bearded ones who came down from the Sierra Maestra. Others, members of the lower-middle class, packed up and flew to Miami, thinking that the Comandante’s revolutionary wave was only a passing fad.

In the early years, more than three thousand professionals, excellent doctors, engineers, architects, academics, intellectuals, almost all representatives of the enlightened Cuban intelligentsia, took to their heels. To denigrate their newly exiled countrymen, official propagandists labeled them as Batista-ites, bourgeois, landowners, exploiters … And to complete the string of insults, the usual cliche of “worms.”

Then things changed. In 1980, during the Mariel boatlift, most of the 120,000 people who left their native country were simple, humble people who had never had a cent, nor run a business. People who had been educated in schools where every morning, after a patriotic speech, they had to salute, shouting “Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che.”

Since ordinary Cubans can’t freely leave their country, those who desert are the ones who are able to travel: doctors, politicians, generals, artists, ballplayers and athletes in general. All are citizens who, while living in Cuba, stand out as “revolutionary,” all the while living a double-standard with masks on. Silently attending boring meetings of the CDR, and voting early in this parody of democracy that are the Cuban elections. With a bottle of rum and to the beat of the conga, they attend military marches and demonstrations in Revolution Plaza. In this way they meet the standard of what is “politically correct.” So they don’t draw attention to themselves, and so the Party and the Ministry of Interior continue to have confidence in them.

In the depths of their souls, they wait for an opportunity. And at the first chance they leave behind tropical socialism, absurd rhetoric and material burdens. The Castro government rationalizes all these Cubans voting with their feet (or at least the majority) by saying that they left in search of economic betterment. They try put their deserters on a par with Mexicans or Haitians who in desperation flee their countries. If we agree with the official line, then we must acknowledge that from the economic standpoint, the Cuban revolution failed.

Still, when you leave Cuba for a better life, and you can read and write, as every Cuban who goes into exile can, if you are not cynical, or a liar, you should let your government know that they are the main cause of your hardship, driving you to jump into the sea on a raft, or into a loveless marriage with a Spaniard or an Italian old enough to be your grandfather.

You must not have a short memory. I still remember — how could I forget — how as a teenager of 15, watching impassively the acts of repudiation and physical attacks on those who decided to leave the island. Then the wind went out of the sail of several socialist projects. The Berlin Wall came down, and overnight, this State of workers and peasants that was the USSR disappeared with amazing speed. The map of Europe changed color.

But Fidel Castro’s revolution, which certainly was not established by Moscow, clung like one posessed to the flag of resistance, nationalism and the threat of Yankee treachery. Then a “miracle” happened. The eternal “worms” turned into butterflies. To the chagrin of Castro, those scum, those worthless Cubans who failed to recognize the greatness of his revolution, thrived, and with the greenbacks of his hated enemy began to support about 60 percent of the Cuban population, according to unofficial figures.

And now in the 21st century, without U.S. dollars, euros, or other foreign exchange sent as family remittances, nobody on the island can make plans to fix their aging house, acquire a television, buy shoes for their children, or eat two hot meals a day.

For the regime, there are “good” worms and “bad” worms. The good ones are those who traveled to Havana on January 27th and 28th, 2010, to meet with government officials “in defense of national sovereignty, the struggle against the blockade, and the release of the five heroes unjustly imprisoned in the empire.”

The meeting was held in the Convention Center, west of the city, under the long title: “Meeting of Cuban Residents Abroad, Against the Blockade and in Defense of National Sovereignty.” According to Granma newspaper, it was attended by 300 delegates from 44 nations, of which 144 came from the United States.

Never mind that these “good” worms have achieved little or nothing. It is still necessary to ask the state permission to travel abroad or visit your own country. If you leave permanently, you lose your house and other properties. And Cubans who think differently than the official line, namely the “bad” worms, are ejected from any discussion as if they had bubonic plague.

I am in favor of any dialogue. But open to all. Not just for those who applaud so long that their hands turn red, for the way the Castro brothers rule the destinies of Cuba.

I want to see the liberal politician Carlos Alberto Montaner, who lives in Madrid, walking the halls of the Convention Center, chatting animatedly with Haroldo Dilla, a Marxist economist who decided to live in Santo Domingo.

How I would like to witness the rough humanity of the poet Raul Rivero, nibbling ham and cheese canapés at Bucan Restaurant with writer Miguel Barnet, while another bard, Roberto Fernandez Retamar approaches him and invites him to his home that evening to talk about poetry.

Or that my mother, Tania Quintero, who was once the friend and journalist partner of Rosa Miriam Elizarde, could ask her about her family and her work. Nor would it be bad if the prestigious journalist Max Lesnik, with whom I share a two-man blog called Ninety Miles in the newspaper El Mundo / America, called me and we stayed to grab a coffee at the Parque Central, and there disagree civilly.

For now none of this is possible. The “good” worms should push the government to take the path of tolerance and respect for differences. Then, these meetings of immigrants would have a reason to occur.

Max, in any case, if you visit Havana, come and see me.

Iván García

Photo: Max Lesnik with Fidel Castro, in the documentary “The Man of Two Havanas,” directed in 2007 by Vivien Lesnik Weisman.

Translated by Tomás A.

Armani, Take Note

He doesn’t look quite the same as English footballer David Beckham, or the Spanish actor Antonio Banderas. He’s Cuban, his name is Carlos and he was born 24 years ago in a village in the middle of the Venezulea sugar-growing region, in the province of Ciego de Avila, about 375 miles from Havana.

He likes to wear tight-fitting Guess jeans, with a wide belt buckle decorated with an imperial eagle, and a Dolce & Garbana pullover sweater, tight, to show off his biceps, patiently sculpted in a gym. More than just his body, what he likes to show off is his penis.

To complete the picture of this neighborhood pretty boy: one gold tooth; two chains and a finger-thick bracelet, all 18 carats; black hair, shiny with too much gel; and he never loses the smile of success.

And what does success mean to the golden boy? He has lived in Havana for five years. In the early days, he rented a room with a friend for 40 convertible pesos a month in a sordid, filthy slum in the suburb of San Leopoldo. Not now.

“I have a Cuban girlfriend who is a model in Italy and is married to a man with a large belly and a larger bank account. She lives for me. Every month she sends me between 800 and 1000 euros and when she comes on vacation we have an amazing time in luxury hotels and trendy discos. She bought a house for my parents in Ciego de Avila and recently one for me in Nuevo Vedado. Also a car and the latest-generation computer. I have no complaints about her.”

Carlos doesn’t consider himself a typical “pinguero” as Cubans call the boys who sell their penis to men or women. From the beginning, when he was a newly-arrived hick in the capital, he found that he attracted men and women equally.

“I made love with a few disgusting old women for 30 cuc, and there were many nights that some European geezer would suck my cock for only ten dollars on the steps of the University of Havana.”

But after years of underpaid sex, life got better. Several Spanish and Canadian homosexuals returned home praising the qualities of this Caribbean gigolo, telling their friends that on their next vacation they should take a short hop to Havana to meet this great looking guy. As good-looking as Antonio Banderas. And hung like a porn star.

And of course, he also toured Nuevo Vedado — girls from Madrid or Milan, plump older women from London or Geneva. One infatuated German woman posted a page that advertised his “qualities.”

“I consider myself a professional. Now I don’t charge less than 120 euros a night, I even have hourly rates, like the best gigolos.”

Carlos’s dream is to leave for Madrid or Berlin, to open a male strip club.

“Here in Cuba you run many risks. Because it’s an illegal occupation, if I get caught I could be put behind bars for 5 years. And in prison, if I wasn’t brave, I would be the ‘girl’ of whichever bugger it pleased.

So he says his hours on the island are numbered.

“I once read that in the 50’s they had a club in Havana’s Chinatown, where a black man was very famous for a show in which he displayed his twelve-inch penis. I measured and I’m close to that. When I relocate to Europe I will do a remake of that show.”

Now he imagines earning euros and winning applause after a performance in nightclubs. Interviews in celebrity magazines and a row of fans making proposals to the boy from central Venezuela who looks like Antonio Banderas. “But better equipped than the actor from Malaga,” he says smiling.

And probably also than David Beckham, whose genitals the Italian reporter Elena di Cioccio dared to touch. The new image of Emporio Armani men’s underwear is the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo. Prettier and more muscular, but not very “gifted” as these photos show:

So, Armani, take note. This Cuban is not as famous, but with him you won’t lose any time doing photoshop.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.

The Nursing Home on San Miguel Street

It gives you an uneasy feeling. The “Veterans Home” old-men’s shelter at Agustina and San Miguel, one block from 10th of October Avenue, is a two-story building, neglected and dirty, painted a color that many years ago was sky blue.

On these cold, wet, sunless mornings you can see several groups of old men, huddled together, bored, dressed in dirty overcoats that have been worn-out since the last century, their eyes bleary, longing for a hot coffee with milk to get the body moving in the face of this cold wave of January 2010.

The poet Raúl Rivero, now in exile in Madrid, says in one of his poems “when it’s cold, hunger carries a jackknife.” Ask Urban Fernández — an old man of 75 years, the last seven of which he has lived in the institution, beset by aches and cruel arthritis — what do you miss most in daily life? He looks at you calmly with his clear eyes, the only part of his body still alive. “I feel nostalgia for a clean bed, some children to care for me in the few years I have left, and a decent hot meal,” says Fernández, while he asks for cigarettes and money from the people who pass by on the streets surrounding the asylum.

People often look the other way when they walk by this run-down geriatric center. No wonder. The spectacle is depressing. Old cripples, hungry, some with advanced senile dementia, playing dominoes or turned into beggars.

“Once we were young and strong,” says Jesús Garzón. “I played baseball, I was a shortstop.” With his hands trembling like vanilla custard, he tries to demonstrate how he caught the ball. Now, debilitated by advanced Alzheimer’s, he is almost always in bed. His family hasn’t visited him in years.

“I am a burden, a nuisance. All I ask for this 2010 is to die as soon as possible.” And suddenly I wondered if someday I could take him to Latinoamericano Field, to the old Cerro Stadium, to watch a baseball game.

Another group of elderly men, covered with faded and darned quilts, play a game of dominoes, and comment on how much they would like to eat a joint of fried chicken. From a nearby cafeteria you can smell the aroma of frying chicken. “But it costs 25 pesos, and I get only 197 pesos (less than eight dollars) from my retirement, explains Reinaldo Peña, age 69.

According to Peña, they spent Christmas and New Years without tasting pork. “These days they gave us a thin soup, white rice, and fish full of bones. The attendants send us to bed early, so they can listen to music and drink rum with their buddies. Boy, you better pray fervently to God that when you reach old age you have a family to look after you,” says the old man, as his dull, nearsighted eyes well up.

Pedro Carballo, 84, has lived in the shelter longer than any of the other old men. “I’m going on 12 years. I’ve seen many die, some good friends of mine. Being in a nursing home is like being a prisoner. Because no one sees me. The attendants who look after us are poor devils who flock here because they don’t have a better option for earning a living. The government doesn’t pay them a living wage, so all they’re interested in is stealing as much food, oil, and detergent as they can,” Carballo said in a calm voice.

And he tells me that when they get donations from abroad, the workers divide them among themselves. “To us mangy old shits who refuse to die, we always get the worst,” said the angry old man.

A group of five or six octogenarians approach and give further details. “Those of us considered part-time, that is, we only come here to eat and sleep, we hit the streets at dawn, trying to earn a few dollars, to make life less hard. I sell newspapers, I have several customers who pay me 30 pesos a week to deliver the newspaper to their homes. With that money, I can dine on something better,” explains Norberto Arias, 78, a thin black man wearing an old wool coat and shoes with the sole detached, fixed with wire.

For Norberto, to “dine on something better” is eating rice, beans, root vegetables, and boiled fish, in a  gloomy, dirty state joint that sells food at low prices, called El Encanto. Most of the old guys in the facility state spent Christmas watching TV or telling stories, boasting about when they were young and had an army of beautiful women, dressed elegantly, and drank beer.

In a corner, Norberto Arias commented: “This is the only thing that distracts us, spinning yarns and living in the past and the nostalgia. Our reality is hard. We hope that God will take us soon. Many Christmases have passed since we ate candies or had a nice hot meal.  Our families reject us. We don’t blame anyone, it’s the hand we were dealt,” Arias said while lowering his head and weeping silently.

This is what remains of one of the Veterans Homes that existed in Havana before 1959, where former Mambises, as they called those who fought in the wars of independence from Spain, could live out their old age with dignity. You can see from the photo, taken February 24, 1952, when a group of female students from a public school (among whom is my mother) went with their teacher to take tobacco and spend some time with these history-laden old men. All impeccably dressed, with their linen guayaberas.

Now it is a gloomy and sad shelter, on Calle San Miguel in the 10th of October municipality, the most populous of Havana. If you’re not shocked to read how these old men live, please go to the cardiologist.

Iván García

Translated by: Tomás A.